Educating in a pandemic

posted September 24, 2020 at 12:05 am
by  Jenny Ortuoste
"Both teachers and students go through a learning curve."



"What's natural is the microbe,” Albert Camus writes in The Plague, his novel that found new relevance this year as COVID-19 forces the world to change the ways by which it conducts human activity, including the ways we teach and learn.

We know microbes abound, yet we never thought we would experience a  pandemic in our lifetime. But why should we have been spared? As Camus writes further:

"Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise."

Among the sectors caught by surprise was the academe. Although some schools that could afford it had installed online learning management systems much earlier, these were primarily meant to be used when students and teachers were prevented from coming to class by bad weather.

Now these systems are being used full-time, as face-to-face classes have been suspended in order to avoid contracting and spreading the virus. The education community has been forced to quickly adapt to the new circumstances and methods.

I teach masteral courses in the graduate school of a university in Manila, and our community has responded to the COVID-19 challenge by rolling out faculty training on effective methods of remote pedagogy and using our learning app.

The first week of classes saw faculty and students go through a learning curve as they negotiated the technological complexities of online education. As we enter our sixth week, we’ve settled down into our new routine.

Here are some of our experiences:

1.    Not everyone has the same level of Wi-Fi connectivity. A common problem is students dropping out of the “class” -- the video conference -- because of a weak signal, and being unable to recite because their audio is intermittent and choppy. Worse is when they are unable to present their work because they can’t connect and “present screen.”

Be patient when you see students dropping out and joining in again – they are just having connectivity issues.

2.    Some students have more resources than others. I have students who use their cellphones to connect to our online classes, while others have laptops or desktop computers. It’s hard. I wish the playing field were level for everyone. Be understanding if a student cites equipment issues.

3.    Distractions abound. A lecture or presentation can be interrupted or punctuated by a cacophony of background sounds, including the electric fan and the ubiquitous dog, rooster, and gecko. There’s also the yelling relative or boisterous child who doesn’t realize their voices are being picked up.

When that happens, politely ask the person to mute their mic, unless they are speaking; if they are, don’t embarrass them and just pretend there’s nothing out of the ordinary.

4.    Give regular breaks. Research shows that “virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain,” writes Julia Sklar in National Geographic. This “Zoom fatigue” occurs when the brain finds it difficult and overwhelming to process what a person is communicating in the absence of non-verbal cues, such as body language and gestures. In a three-hour class, I try to give a short break every hour.

5.    Allow students to go off-cam. Mine say they go off-cam so they don’t use up too much bandwidth and get dropped from the video call. It also gives them a bit of a breather and allows them to relax from Zoom fatigue.

I’ve read that some teachers don’t allow this to ensure that students are still in the class. What I do to monitor presence is call upon the off-cam students to recite.

6.    Observe which online video call apps use less bandwidth while having the clearest connection. Use the best one for your needs, if your school allows. My students and I have tried several, but the one they like best is not a partner of our school, so we make do with what’s required, though it gives us connectivity issues.  

7.    Get feedback on what works and what doesn’t. My students’ comments and suggestions are of great help to me as I try to make my online classes more informative and engaging.

8.    Don’t lecture for too long at a time. Attention spans are shorter under virtual interaction; perhaps prepare shorter lectures, or cut a long one into segments and conduct other activities in between, like video showings or student presentations.

9.    Many students are experiencing mental distress under these strange circumstances. Extend patience when it comes to the submission of requirements. Try to make it easier for them without spoon-feeding. Be compassionate and help them succeed, rather than insisting on pre-COVID-type rules and restrictions that set them up to fail under the new normal.

I’ve also observed that my students are eager to help each other negotiate pandemic learning, and they collaborate and discuss with each other to make their work go smoother. As their teacher, it makes me proud that they are good persons, that this plague has brought out the best in them.

Let Camus have the last word: "What we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise."

*** FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO

Topics: Jenny Ortuoste , Albert Camus , The Plague , COVID-19 pandemic
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